OK, so one of my favourite particle physicists – Dr Simon Singh, author of “Big Bang” (the best book I’ve ever read on the development of understanding of the origin of the universe) – is in a spot of legal hot water at the moment surrounding a comment piece he wrote for The Guardian (mirrored here, as The Grauniad had to take theirs down), discussing chiropractic. The article focussed on the founder of chiropractic’s belief that you could treat around 95% of diseases by manipulation of the spine, on the grounds that spinal misalignment blocks energy flow and hence causes these diseases. Specifically, Singh referred to an information leaflet put out by the British Chiropractic Association claiming that chiropractic was an effective treatment for children of conditions such as ear infections, asthma, and colic. Singh’s comment was that there is no published scientific or clinical evidence to back up these statements, and the line of the article which has drawn fire is:
This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.
The BCA – rather than providing any evidence to support their claims – have sued Singh for libel, which seems to (incredibly) have some legs on it thanks to England’s archaic libel laws.
This is an extremely important case, because the substance is court intervention in silencing a scientific matter – I’m condensing this because many more informed words have been written about it than I could possibly muster, but the idea that you can use libel laws to silence criticism on scientific grounds without having to provide a shred of evidence to back up your side of the story is an incredibly scary one, and totally at odds with the aims of science.
The case has caused quite a stir among the scientific community (understandably), and a statement has been drawn up to be raised to parliament, signed by some quite heavy academic & scientific hitters – if you’re concerned about the direction this case is taking, feel free to add your name to the list of supporters!
- Comment by Singh at Sense About Science
- For Simon Singh and Free Speech Against the BCA Libel Claim Facebook group
- Jack of Kent’s blog coverage of the issue (analysing from a legal standpoint, commencing in August 2008)
- Jack of Kent’s analysis of the current state of English libel law
- Google News results on the story
I’m certainly not a lawyer, and I’ll freely admit that my grasp of the facts is tenuous at best, however the thing which seems readily apparent to me is that the BCA, having sued Singh for damages over his allegedly defamatory statements causing damage to their reputation have in fact damaged their own reputation many times more visibly than had they ignored the article completely.
I’d hate to get into an argument with someone which required lawyers to sort out, however you’d hope that if that ever happened then the verdict would go in favour of whoever was able to prove their case. What this case seeks to do is prevent Singh from being able to make his case, despite the plaintiffs having no means of proving theirs but also having no requirement to do so. Should the BCA win, this case would set a fairly awkward precedent against anyone who was critical of alternative medicine – I guess that point is the whole reason I got swept up into this story in the first place: fairly frivilously catalysed by my enthusiasm for Tim Minchin‘s magnum opus “Storm“.
So I guess we’ll see what happens, eh?
Update 2009-06-09: More from Dave Gorman – relating to the ASA ruling against a chiropractor regarding claims that they could treat colic.